Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Turko-Russian tango

Simmering historical animosity between the two powers reached a boiling point over Syria this week, reports Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 27 October, Taraff’s banner headline blazoned, “Putin threatens to call off his official visit to Turkey.” The article reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin would postpone his visit scheduled for 3 December indefinitely unless Ankara immediately handed back the equipment it had confiscated from a Syrian passenger plane that was bound from Moscow to Damascus and that the Turkish airforce had forced to land in Ankara’s Esenboga airport on 10 October. Turkish authorities claimed that they had received intelligence that the plane had been carrying weapons, which they described as “Russian-made missile systems” destined for the Syrian Ministry of Defence.
If the Turkish daily’s information is correct, then this would be the second time the Russian president put off his trip to Turkey. He had originally planned an important three-day tour starting on 14 October after which he and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan would head off together to Azerbaijan to attend the Economic Cooperation Organisation summit. There are conflicting explanations as to why this first visit was postponed. One version claims that the two leaders had agreed to call it off several days before the Syrian plane was forced to land. The reason, according to some was that they thought that it would be better to wait until after the presidential elections and Washington resolves its position on the Syrian question. A second maintains that the request to postpone it came from Putin, but on the grounds that he was preoccupied with domestic concerns.  
But even if Turkey’s interception of the Syrian plane was the real reason for the postponement, the incident only exposes the deep gulf that has existed in Turkish-Russian relations, not for decades, but for centuries. Ankara’s and Moscow’s opposing positions on the Syrian question are only one aspect of this dilemma which is permeated by a range of ethnic and cultural conflicts, aggravated by rivalries over energy resources and their transportation routes, and further exacerbated by the repercussions of the civil war in Syria. Syria is the last bastion of Russian influence in the Middle East and, simultaneously, a prize that today is being sought after by the West via its Turkish arm, the contemporary heir to the Ottoman Empire or what in the declining years of that empire was referred to as the “Sick Man of Europe”.
Turkey (from the Ottomans to the Kemalists) and Russia (from the Czars to the Soviets) form a paradigm that may not be entirely unique in international relations but that nevertheless has some idiosyncratic traits. It is a relationship that seems perpetually doomed to mutual suspicion and mistrust, perhaps because geopolitical antitheses (in their broadest geographical, ethnic and cultural sense) continue to play a crucial role in perpetuating a mutually antagonistic past.
Yet, ironically, they both need each other.
So, what was that past? What about the future in the event of a change in the balance of power and the inauguration of a Eurasian continent stretching deep into the steppes of Siberia? As utopian as it may appear, it has long been a dream shared by ordinary Russians and elites alike. And how would Turkey stand with respect to this, even if it has become European?
Then there is the present and its demands for interaction. If the two sides can work out ways to communicate and work together effectively, would this dispel the pessimism shared by a large segment of the Turkish intelligentsia who fear that Moscow would monopolise the Eurasian leadership?  
As instinctively averse to communism as he was, Ataturk had no desire to court hostilities with the newly formed Bolshevik state that bordered the Anatolian plateau in which he had begun to lay the foundations for the Turkish republic. Nevertheless, it appears he was fully aware of the vast difference between his dream for his fledgling republic and that far-flung land in which the Bolsheviks had overthrown czarist rule and inaugurated the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Ataturk’s successors followed suit. In fact, they turned more of a blind eye to the various forms of repression and persecution that were meted out to their ethnic extensions in Central Asia. Effectively, their motto was, “Turkic peoples had to adjust to the systems and laws of the countries in which they lived or face the consequences.” In keeping with this approach, Ankara signed a cooperation agreement with Moscow under Stalin’s rule in the 1940s. But this did not signify that the Soviet Union with its socialist ideals had suddenly shed Russia’s deep-seated hatreds. The Czars may have gone, but that did not end the long legacy of animosity toward Anatolia.
In the 1950s, Turkey became part of NATO, in part through in own persistence and in part due to US pressure on the weary post-war European continent. When the Korean civil war flared, no one in Russia was left with a shadow of a doubt that their Turkish neighbour served as a foothold for the US. That may have been true to a large extent, but Ankara, for its part, saw in NATO a refuge that could allay its justifiable fears with respect to the intentions of its northern neighbour and that could alleviate the chronic repercussions from a long and bloody history shaped by a complex array of borders.
With the end of the Cold War and the rise of the US to sole leadership of the new world order, Turkey, which had served as a bulwark against the creeping tentacles of communism, now felt alone in the face of the Russian Federation. Its anxieties may be heightened by the increasing popularity in Russia of ideas such as those espoused by Alexander Dugin, a political theorist who believes in a lasting conflict between Land (religion, tradition, collectivism) and Sea (progressivism, atheism, individualism) and, hence, between  “Atlanticism”, a sea-based alliance championed by the US, and the natural land-based, anti-westernisation Eurasian alliance that he espouses.
Yet, curiously, in spite of Turkey’s maritime character, Anatolian society shares the same strict conservative values and traditions. Moreover, sociopolitically and geopolitically, the Anatolian plateau is closely connected to the Russian heartland. Even so, the two are separated by a chasm broader than the Serbian steppes, a chasm deepened by a blend of Slavic chauvinism and Christian religious sentiment which feeds a sense of animosity toward the Anatolian “other”.
Nor is the foregoing the only irony. Although Russia has never and will never seek membership the EU, prominent European intellectuals contend that Russia, historically, geographically and culturally, is part of Europe, while they regard Turkey, which continues to aspire to EU membership, as anything but a European country.
In spite of kin and linguistic ties (Turkey sees itself as the elder brother of the six Islamic countries in Central Asia), Ankara has not made great progress in extending its influence in Central Asia. Perhaps its economic capacities are too modest to meet the demands of the emergent republics there. However, a more important reason is that Russia’s long and deeply penetrating influence in this region continued to form a powerful barrier. Certainly, any move that Ankara has made to extend bridges and build ties has met with the Kremlin’s anger.
But to give Ankara credit, it has tried as much as possible to avoid rankling Russia. For example, it offered no support to Chechen separatists during the Russian war in Chechnya in 1994, if only because it knew very well that the Kremlin would respond by supporting Kurdish separatists. This does not stop the Kremlin from doing so in various guises, which stirred an outcry among Turkish political forces, and led to some privately donate aid and support to Chechen families from Turkish NGOs and individual donors.
Tensions flare into the open in the late 1990s when news leaked of a shipment of Russian-made S-300 missiles to the southern part of Cyprus which had been divided since 1974. Turkey threatened to launch a pre-emptive strike to prevent the arrival of the missiles or even a war on Cyprus, according to reports in the US and Greek Cypriot press of the time. The crisis continued to escalate, but just as the parties appeared on the brink of war, Cyprus ordered the missile shipment redirected to Crete and further news of its deal with Russia was silenced as though the deal had never existed.
Diplomatic rhetoric aside, Ankara did not dwell for long on the Russian veto of a Security Council resolution encouraging Greek and Turkish Cypriots to adopt a UN plan to unify their country. Decision-making circles in Ankara knew they could not buck the realities of the spiritual ties between Russia and Greece, nor those of the relations between Moscow and Armenia, which harbours a longstanding animosity toward Turkey. Ankara put these differences aside and showed it was determined to overcome the hurdles that the past has imposed on the present and to keep the door open to further meetings of mutual interest.
Russia, which was now weak and reeling under the weight of economic problems, was keen to respond positively, especially given how crucial Turkey was for Russia at that time. Indeed, Turkey occupies a highly strategic position among the centres of energy production and it is a major transit point for the huge reserves of oil and natural gas from Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In addition, Turkey is poised to assume a key role in the Caspian region. However, all this is contingent upon stability in this region which, in turn, can not be secured without a balanced relationship with Russia. Consider, for example, that Turkey is not a significant oil or natural gas producer. Its dependency on foreign energy resources stood at 72 per cent in 2010 and is expected to climb to 76 per cent by 2020. Meanwhile, Russian shipping is heavily dependent on the narrow straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.
Therefore, a range of mutual interests, balances of powers, and geopolitical circumstances demand a meeting of ways and, acting on this reality, the two countries have forged cooperative relations in various fields. While it is true that these relations may occasionally flag, as is currently the case, their general trajectory seems upward, especially in matters pertaining to trade.
 In fact, if you happen to arrive in Ataturk International Airport, you will immediately notice the throngs of Russian tourists who spend more than a billion dollars a year on package tours to Turkey and then return home laden with gifts and other purchases. In addition, there are dozens of Russian merchants who do not make it all the way to Istanbul, as they are perfectly content to do their shopping in Turkish towns on the Black Sea closer to the Russian border, such as Trabzon and Rize. According to official figures, Turkey reaps an annual $1.5 billion from this trade alone, and some estimate that the parallel economy brings in double this amount.

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